Kate Cooper-Owen came up with the idea when staying at a friend's house. Her friend's boyfriend sidled into the kitchen in the morning in a silken robe: "It had this beautiful cherry blossom pattern on it," she remembers. "It wasn't a kimono in the strictest sense, but it was such a amazing look. I pretty much said on the spot, 'This should be a calendar.'" Just over a year later, the 2016 calendar, shot by fashion photographer Woland, is now sending out its first orders. Featuring only non-professional beards modelling, Bearded Men In Silky Kimonos' 2016 calendar provides a bearded hunk for every month: some lounging in armchairs, parasol over one shoulder; others draped gracefully on a velvet sofa, one finger hovering over the knob on a vintage radio.
The tradition of the pinup calendar was what appealed to Cooper-Owen. There's a nostalgia in the format, as well as in the styling. "The idea of a physical calendar is slightly ironic—they've been made obsolete by people's phones," Cooper-Owen explains. "Yet every year brands like Pirelli do their themed calendars, which are really just an excuse to look at—admittedly beautiful —photos of people just for the sake of it." There's something almost naively pre-internet about the themed calendar, perhaps the printed format that comes closest to the mesmerizing repetition of Tumblr.
In the calendar, models pose in a retro and refined fantasy, complete with vintage furniture, teacups, and watering cans. The images are oddly entrancing: romantic, whimsical scenery, combined with hirsute nests of freeflowing chinwool and slippery folds of silk that can't help but draw the eye. There's a weirdly fascinating interplay between these two visual elements, Cooper-Owen says: "The allure really comes from the combination of these bear-like brooding gentlemen—with a very masculine, 'hipster' look—draped in a delicate feminine and colourful garment. And yet it looks so surprisingly natural. We hope we've tapped into an aesthetic which is simultaneously beautiful and handsome at the same time."
It took little persuasion from Cooper-Owen to get bearded dudes to pose semi-nude in elegant silk robes. September pin-up Theo Holder, who runs the tearoom where several of the photos were shot, said: "If someone gives you the opportunity to pose… Why not?! It makes you feel powerful and vulnerable which in itself is sexy." In particular, models seemed to be gloriously unconcerned about not seeming masculine enough. "It never really occurred to me that there might be a clash between the perceived masculinity of beards versus the perceived femininity of silky kimonos," said August model Gabriel Chantrey. "I myself have a silk dressing-gown which I float about in at home feeling like George V."
Beards have been getting a weird rap recently: the Guardian recently proclaimed that we've reached "peak beard" and their resurgence has been explained as a reassertion of traditional masculinity, due to women's increased economic power. But it's worth noting how much care, effort and attention beards require: they're a point of pride, as well as a bonding aesthetic with others of the hirsute facial persuasion. "I do feel that having a beard is an important part of my identity," says Chantrey. "Does it get me attention? Sometimes. Mostly from other men with beards." Holder agrees that it's one of his defining physical features: "If you have a beard, no one looks past the beard: Ask people what colour my eyes are, and they would struggle to tell you."
There's also the question of whether, groomed or not, copious facial hair has to be an ultra-masculine look. Gabriel points to the inspirational model of Harnaam Kaur, who has said that her beard makes her feel more feminine. Celebrating the beard doesn't have to be just about enjoying tough manliness.
And then there's the kimono itself—in Japan, originally a unisex garment, but now most often worn by women. The versions used in the calendar are more like dressing gowns, or robes. Lighter and looser, these lend themselves more readily to cheeky slips of nudity (it is a pin-up calendar, after all).
Cooper-Owen explains that they wanted to make sure they portrayed the Japanese cultural heritage of the kimonos in a sensitive light. "There's always a worry that what you're doing is going to be viewed as cultural appropriation," she says. "The key here is that it wasn't about our models 'dressing up', or making any comment on Japanese culture. It was really an aesthetic decision— kimonos are absolutely beautiful, often very intricately designed garments and the calendar is as much a celebration of that as it is of our lovely bearded men."
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It's refreshing to know that one woman's momentary pleasure in the male form can create a phenomenon that is as sexy and silly; powerful and vulnerable. But maybe not for everyone—"Not everyone 'gets it,'" Cooper-Owen says. "The people who do are the people who hear the concept and chuckle a bit I think." As Chantrey puts it: "Among my friends, people seem to get it…Maybe it's just because beards and kimonos are both great things, and sometimes more is definitely more."